One of my favorite type memories growing up was spending time with my dad in the national parks around us. I learned from him how to avoid bears when hiking. How to notice scat, tracks and smells that say a bear is near. I remember a day out with my dad when we noticed a bear with cubs out in a field. We sat and kept our distance watching her play with her babies. It was a common park area, so a lot of people saw her. One man, who was from out of state, decided he wanted to go pet her. I remember my dad saying, “if you go over there, she will eat your ass.” The man, who apparently thought that national park bears were tame, didn’t listen to my dad’s warning and started to walk out into the field. Not wanting to see a man eaten alive, my dad ran to his car and blared on the horn. Momma bear hearing the horn popped her head up and saw the potential snack walking her way. She rose on her back feet and stood to get a better view and size up her snack. The out of stater, now pants pooper, froze. “Get down you jack ass,” shouting while wielding a flare gun and cow bell my dad stepped into the field to save him. The man never thanked my dad for saving his life, but he learned a lesson that day. Bears in the wild are in face wild.
In Tennessee and the Southern Appalachians, bears are found all over in communities, on farms, and in the mountains. There are news reports every year about a bear breaking into businesses, such as candy stores, restaurants, and even a jewelry store. Every year there are public announcements not to feed the bears, keep your distance and to report sightings. These black bears found in the Southern Appalachian region are known to be skittish to humans, and mainly attach out of defense.
Since 2010, there are been 29 deaths from bear attacks, 2 from polar bears, 17 from grizzly bears, and 10 from black bears. The polar bear attacks occurred in Nunavut, both bears acting in predatory manor and both were killed. The grizzly bear attacks occur mainly in Wyoming, Alaska and the Western Regions of Canada. All the attacks of the grizzly bear were different, some were attacked while sleeping camping trips others were attacked while hunter or fishing. Many of the black bear attacks were predatory. Except for the man in Ohio in 2010, who worked for a man that kept the poor black bear in captivity and released it while feeding. However, Ohio man become bear chow instead.
So how do you now become a bear’s amuse bouche (that’s fancy for appetizer)? The most common and most practical advice to carry Bear Spray. You can find it at most outdoor stores. If you come across a bear out in the wild living room of their home, you want to be sure you can something to protect yourself with. Now I do want to note as well that some sites, organizations and articles may suggest carrying a gun. However, in the cases of National and State parks firearms may be prohibited. So, I would check on that, especially if you are going out in a time of high bear sightings. But otherwise Bear Spray.
While looking at numerous articles and literature about hiking in “bear country” here is a list of things that ALL hikers should know.
- Avoid hiking alone
Hiking with a partner isn’t just a smart idea so you don’t get lost, but it helps ward off predators. To a hungry bear, panther, or wolf (or on occasion a horny male moose) a single hiker may look like easy pickings. With a partner or better yet a group of people, the predator will see it more of a challenge. Unlink over protein pack male humans drunk in a dive bar, this is more than enough reason to not attack.
- Don’t let children or pets wander
This should be common since. If you take your child on a hike don’t let the wonder off. Trail dogs should always also be leashed. You may think “Oh, they are so well behaved. I don’t have to worry.” Let me just say you are wrong. Recently, I took my dog, Hugo, on a trail near us. He did well until he smelled something off in the bushes. I couldn’t see, hear, or smell anything, but HE DID. He was pulling me hard to try and chase whatever it was and growling in a voice I’ve never heard from him. If it weren’t for the leash and a slip proof harness, he would have chased the mystery creature. You have to think of the worst-case scenario for the safety of your children, both human and fur babies.
- Make noise
There are several ways people advise making noise while hiking. The most popular is just to talk to your hiking partners. Other people (probably not hikers) advise playing music. Honestly, I hike not just for the exercise but to see the wildlife so playing music isn’t the best idea for a hiker like me. I trust my dad’s way of making noise. If your day hiking, attach a cow bell (or any type of loud bell) to your pack. It will knock around enough to ward off predators and you can stop the sound if needed (like trying to get a picture of the aforementioned moose). For longer hikes that include over nights, attach a pan and metal spoon to you pack, it will act like a cow bell. However, if you use the pan for food MAKE SURE IT IS CLEAN BEFORE HIKING!!
- Stick to the trail
This is very important! First, you don’t want to get lost. Second, the wildlife knows where those trails are and how often humans are on them. If you wonder off trail, you could be walking into a den. (Don’t be like Emperor Kuzco from Disney!) In bear country be especially aware. Walking into the home of a bear isn’t like how the tale of Goldie Locks portrays it. You may be eaten.
I also want to note that grizzly bears are known to alter their habitat to avoid humans, so stick to your trails.
- Avoid bear food
So, I know you can’t control what you walk up on. Walking up to a dead animal is traumatic enough. Bear’s diets consist of a lot of different foods, like dead animals, fish, berries, and other yummy things. You may not think that the patch of wild berries near the trail is a bear’s snack cupboard, but it is. You may not think that cleaning a recently caught fish or any other hunted animal for your dinner will attract a bear, but it will. Even cooking in a camp site may be enough to lure in a hungry bear.
- Be aware
Be aware of your surroundings. Research your trail. See if the bear sightings are frequent. Learn what your state or national park says about the trail you want to hike. When out in the embrace of the wild, listen to the surroundings. Do you hear something moving? Was that a growl in the bushes? Also, know where the shelters are and how far your car is. If you must find shelter make sure you can get to it safely, and quickly.
- Day hike
I will always suggest day hiking. Even if you are back packing, don’t hike at night. You may not be able to see but they can see you!
- Avoid high population
Avoiding areas of high bear population should be common sense, but like the out of stater my dad saved, not everyone’s common sense is the same. Going out when there are high frequencies of sightings in the area is testing fate. Even with a group, bear spray and everything else, the fight between a 400 lb bear verses a 200 lb human will be deadly. My bets are on the bear,
- Don’t leave food or garbage.
As we should know by now bears love food. Yogi loved eating picnic baskets and so do other bears. If you bring food with you make sure it is in an airtight container and you don’t leave your trash. Black bears can smell food from a mile away.
- Signs of bear
Learn the signs of bears being around. They have distinctive prints, scat and other markings. Below are some examples of what you may see.
- Avoid lotions and perfumes (also clothes)
Before leaving your house, do not use perfumes or lotions that are scented. You don’t want the bears to think that there is a giant cucumber melon walking around. Like I said before they can smell a mile off. Also, if you wear bright colors to hike in EVERYTHING can see you! So, that pink Lulu Lemon shirt you just love wearing, will make you look like a human lollipop.
- Don’t leave packs
Never leave your pack lay somewhere! If you want to put it down to take a picture, please don’t. If a bear has been following you, and you leave your pack alone, guess what they have now gotten a picnic basket. If you are camping, make sure to know the proper ways of storing food and packs to prevent scavenging.
- Keep you distance
If you see a bear. IT IS NOT PET ABLE! STAY AWAY. It does not want to be bothered so leave it alone. If one is following you, calmly find safety.
- Never Run
If you run you are prey. Have you ever met a dog who doesn’t pay any mind to you until you run (like police K9s)? The same is true about bears. It’s a predatory response. It’s not their fault if you are being an idiot.
Knowing why a bear behaves a certain way is key to surviving in their home. Their behavior can be predicted in some manners (even more so than humans). If you take the time to learn what you are saying to the bear and what the bear is telling you, than the risk of attack and negative encounters is lowered. The first thing to understand (other than that you are in THEIR home), is that bears are mainly shy and don’t want to be around humans (we are too loud and destructive). They would rather be in their hermit cave, frolicking in a meadow, or scratching their tooshies on the right type of tree.
Bears also have a safety bubble. Humans should understand this concept. My personal bubble is more that the CDC recommended 6 feet, but more like if I can see you its too close. I understand that bears need their own space and so should you. If your like me and don’t generally like people being about in your space (no matter your bubble size) than take the time and think about how a wild bear would feel if you got into theirs. Would he/she feel scared? Would he/she feel threatened? Probably both. Also, keep in mind just like people, each bear is different.
So, what predictable behavior are there to be aware of? Lets talk about the difference between a predatory bear behavior and a defensive bear behavior. For a black bear, predatory behavior includes stalking, baring teeth, and the means to kill. If a black bear is stalking you, it means to kill you. You will want to find shelter right away with out running.
On the other hand, if you spook a bear, it will act defensively. It thinks you are going to kill it. Calmly and slowly back up. Avoid direct eye contact but keep the bear in your vision line. Start making noise and try to seem as big as you can. If you are in a group link hands and start being loud together. The bear will see you as dangerous and leave the area.
If a bear does attack, it makes a difference what type of bear and how you react. For grizzly bears ONLY, play dead. Lay face down and cover your face. It may try and come over and move you but try to stay face down. For black bears ONLY, you will want to fight with every once of your being. If a black bear attacks you, it means to kill. So, get a stick, rock, pan, whatever and fight! Your life will depend on it.
Why would these shy creatures attack anyway? Well, for one if you are being stupid and don’t hike smart. For two, if it is a mother and cubs (you know the saying don’t mess with a momma bear? Yeah that is real). And Lastly, if there is something wrong with the bear (sick, starving, etc).
How to report a bear sighting. Each state and national park as a website, that you can find the contact information on. However, if it is an emergency situation call 911 (or your emergency line for other countries). I know cell service in a lot of places is spotty so also see if you can get the radio channel for the ranger station before you head out. I always take a hand radio for emergencies.
BE SMART AND STAY SAFE